The standing ovation, once a symbol of audiences so stirred that they could not remain seated, has become a ritual on opening nights in Pittsburgh theater. That's when company backers, friends and relatives of the cast and other well-wishers urgently rise to demonstrate support.
It came to pass, however, that when the brilliant Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre cast of Oscar Wilde's Salome took curtain calls Saturday, almost no person stood in the house.
You might surmise a stunned audience. But when crowds emerge from their initial awe, they typically get up and cheer. This did not happen. If the audience was stunned, it was from being hit over the head too hard.
PICT's version of the infrequently seen play has become director Alan Stanford's overly personal canvas. Stanford has taken Wilde's one-act play and stretched and bent it into a two-hour exercise in style and ritual where nearly every word, move and gesture gets held up for examination as if under a magnifying glass, showing multitudinous refractions of altered reality.
Intellectually, no doubt, one can find justification. Within his potentially simple retelling of the legend, Wilde has inserted drawn-out passages of ornate and colorful language, punctuated by deliberately repetitive phrases. Wilde's text, extrapolating a scant few lines in two New Testament books, could swiftly and relentlessly build momentum into a brutal and shocking denouement. Not this time.
It's true that John the Baptist's severed head is never seen dangling and dripping; given today's cinematic penchant for leaving no gory stone unturned, you may find director Stanford's conception quite a relief. But imagine what it would be like on film if not only explosions, destruction and violence became visualized in heavy-weighted time, but everything else lumbered along at the same rate.
You have to admire the indelible verbal and physical artistry of every performer, especially Nicole Underhay, Jim Mezon and Kate Young as Salome, Herod and Herodias, respectively, howling and crooning vowels, hissing and spitting streams of consonants yet able at the same time to convey rich characterizations. And you cannot help but marvel at the extraordinary physical discipline needed to execute pantomimed, usually slow-motioned depictions of each significant action, including Salome's removing garment after garment while remaining fully clothed.
Yet while the cast, with great artistry, may exercise every vocal chord and muscle to near exhaustion, an unmoved audience could become numb.
Salome continues through June 28. Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow Boulevard, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org